Thursday, August 13, 2009

America and the Plight of Russian Jewry

Most of us are quiet familiar with the 'fight' on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s. That ultimately led to masses of immigrants to both the United States and Israel. But how many people know that the first wave of Russian immigrants occurred well over 100 years ago in the late 19th century at Ellis Island?

The Jewish Star’s Alan Jay Gerber reviews a book by Vincent J. Cannato about Ellis Island, the legendary port of entry for the masses of immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. Most people know that among those ‘huddled masses’ of immigrants there were many Jews. And large segments of them were from Czarist Russia

How many people know of efforts to restrict Jewish immigration especially from Russia back then? That was what some of the anti-Semitic elements in this country were agitating for.

But the people whom made this country great were not the anti-Semites. It was its great leaders. People like President Benjamin Harrison for example.

Harrison appointed his close friend John B. Weber to head a commission to study the massive increase in the numbers European immigrants to the United States. He especially wanted to know why so many of those immigrants were Russian Jews.

Weber was sent to Europe by Harrison with instructions to give special attention to the situation of Russian Jewry. Weber was joined by his own friend Dr. Walter Kempster to study the problem. They did so studying the problem first hand and issued a report to the President.

From the article:

Weber and Kempster issued their report in January 1892. They came to the conclusion that people left Europe largely because of “superior conditions of living in the United States,” They received this impression from others, including friends and relatives who preceded them to these shores. The report also detail the horrid conditions under which the Jews of Russia lived.

Cannato noted that, “Following his instructions from Harrison, Weber paid special attention to the plight of Jews…

The author goes into great detail as to what motivated this human deluge and of the anti-Semitic reaction here to this. Weber and Kempster did not hide their sympathy for the Jews they encountered in the Pale of Settlement and were very candid with Harrison about what they witnessed. In effect, the Weber-Kempster Report was a sharp and severe rebuke to those bigots who wished to curtail and ultimately restrict Jewish East European immigration in its infancy.

The doors were left open. As a result a large Jewish presence grew and combined with the post holocaust immigration of Jews - we now have an unprecedented presence in a country that has been almost unfailingly generous to the Jewish people – constitutionally considering us full partners in this great experiment known as the United States of America.

A posthumous thank you Benjamin Harrison and company. Thank you to Vincent J. Cannato for making us aware of this little known chapter in American Jewish history and thank you to Alan Jay Gerber for reviewing his book.